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17 Aug 2012 13:53
Australian Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans and Wallabies lock Nathan Sharpe, listen to speeches during a press conference to launch the inaugural Bledisloe Cup Festival in Sydney. (AFP)
In Sydney, old rivals Australia and New Zealand begin their annual bunfight for the Bledisloe Cup, but five hours later history will be made when South Africa take to the field against Argentina in Cape Town.
Sixteen years after rugby went professional, Los Pumas finally have a seat at the top table - and the Tri-Nations, a tournament that always felt short of genuine purpose, is no more. The Rugby Championship is the name delegated to the new four-team contest and one can only imagine how many smart drinks and sushi suppers it took for the marketers to arrive at such an utterly moribund title.
Three seasons ago, when Sanzar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia Rugby) first considered expanding the competition, vested interests prevailed.
Instead of inviting a fourth team, they agreed to play each other three times a season, a decision that instantly produced the unthinkable: Test matches between the Springboks and the All Blacks that were not sold out.
So the arrival of Argentina brings a breath of fresh air, not just to southern hemisphere rivalries, but also to the world game.
Few are giving the visitors much chance at Newlands, but if the predicted deluge arrives all bets are off.
Pumas coach Santiago Phelan would brook no suggestion that his team was merely happy to make up the numbers. "Listen, whenever we take the field, we play to win. We have done the groundwork; we have chosen the best squad; we are ready."
The bulk of the squad is fresh, the European season having ended in May. For the first time in years, Phelan has his best players available for a tournament other than the World Cup. It should be the start of something big. If this season is too soon, then be assured that one day in the near future a few administrators will look back on the decision to include Argentina and regret the loss of hegemony.
To an extent, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has played into opposition hands with his team selection. He has given further lifelines to Bulls stalwarts Morné Steyn and Zane Kirchner at flyhalf and fullback respectively. In a few years' time, we may revisit the match programme and wonder how on earth either was ever selected ahead of Pat Lambie.
The injury to Pierre Spies's finger is fortuitous, because he is not the man you want in the trenches when it is raining and a bunch of burly cattle farmers are stuffing the ball up their jerseys. The inclusion of Keegan Daniel gives the back row more balance and he will probably exchange places with Willem Alberts when the situation demands. A narrow win for the Boks should emerge from a hard day at the office.
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